If you work in telecommunications or are a close industry watcher, it may seem that 5G has been dominating discussion for nearly a decade. It seems that way because it’s true—important, impactful things take time—but the best is yet to come. Even as 5G technology matures, the 3GPP standard continues to evolve, new features in the standard keep translating to product, and more spectrum is being used. 5G has become a global force that will only grow in both impact and pervasiveness as it evolves to 5G Advanced, and merges connectivity, compute, and artificial intelligence (AI) at the connected intelligent edge.
What does this future look like? Qualcomm examined the parts and the sum at the recent Qualcomm 5G Summit in the company’s hometown of San Diego, California. In a series of master class sessions, company leaders took deep dives into the global spectrum landscape and outlook, new features coming with 3GPP Release 17, and the role of AI in 5G.
Spotlight on 5G spectrum
Discussing spectrum, Qualcomm vice president of regulatory affairs Aspasia Paroutsas characterized it as an “indispensable yet limited resource” that must be put to the most efficient use possible by operators. By the numbers, she said the average consumer today uses about 11 GB of data per month; that figure is expected to grow to 41 GB per month by the end of 2027. “To support all this ever-growing demand, we need more spectrum. But at the same time, we need to find more efficient and innovative ways to share this spectrum.”
Case in point, she said, is how U.S. operators, the Federal Communications Commission, and other stakeholders worked together to share access to the CBRS band. In this case, there is a three-tiered spectrum access system (SAS) coupled with an Environmental Sensing Network (ESN) that can dynamically detect what spectrum is in use by incumbent users and where to facilitate access following a prioritization scheme. Another area of spectrum innovation is for shared mmWave access. Qualcomm is proposing a mechanism to share access to 600 megahertz of spectrum in the 37 GHz band that takes advantage of the highly-directional nature of mmWave frequencies. Another promising spectrum-sharing mechanism, New Radio-Unlicensed (NR-U), allows 5G and Wi-Fi to share access to the unlicensed 5 GHz and 6 GHz bands.
What’s in 5G Release 17?
Qualcomm is a major force in the 3GPP standardization body and has driven the inclusion of a broad range of Release 17 content through early R&D investments, cutting-edge prototyping and its work within the international body, according to the company’s vice president of technical standards Juan Montojo.
Giving a master class on what is in Release 17, which was completed, or “frozen” in 3GPP parlance in June, Montojo divided the stand-out features into two large groups: 5G system-level enhancements and expansion of the standard to new types of devices. On a system-level, he called out further enhancements to MIMO; the new capability of improving uplink for high-capacity mmWave bands; enhancements to power consumption; expansion of 5G to unlicensed bands; and the new ability to deploy mmWave RF repeaters to rapidly and cost-effectively densify high-band networks.
In terms of expanding 5G to new areas, 3GPP has approved NR Light, or RedCap, which effectively right-sizes 5G for mid-tier use-cases with smaller-footprint devices that need a lower degree of complexity, reduced power consumption, increased network efficiency, and coverage optimization. Note, RedCap is not to be confused with NB-IoT or eMTC, which have less performance when compared to NR Light.
Other areas of expansion include the use of satellite-based non-terrestrial networks (NTN) to extend broadband into underserved areas by augmenting existing networks, and to support the Internet of Things at a massive scale. Another key area is building the foundations of standardized support for extended reality (XR) on the device and network side—“the same thing we did 20 years ago for voice,” Montojo said.
The role of AI in the future of 5G
Qualcomm is leader in AI as evidenced by a number of firsts—model quantization, on-device learning, federated learning, video semantic segmentation, AI for wireless, video super resolutions, and neural video compression—as detailed by senior director of technology Joseph Soriaga during a panel discussion on the powerful combination of AI and 5G.
“Qualcomm is really dedicated to making sure that we can make AI ubiquitous,” he said, noting that AI sits at the confluence of the company’s fundamental, platform and applied research.
To that combo of 5G and AI, vice president of engineering Tingfang Ji said some problems in wireless can be solved with a fundamental system understanding and hands-on implementation. “But at the same time, there are a few wireless challenges that have eluded us.” This is where AI comes in.
For Industry 4.0-type applications, AI helps optimize the 5G system to support stringent KPIs around latency, reliability, and positioning. “When you cut the wire, you still have to maintain all the KPIs,” Xiaoxia Zhang, senior director of technology, said. “With 5G and AI, even in a challenging indoor environment, an industrial setting…we are still able to meet the stringent requirements. This would only be available with AI assisting 5G.”
To push this vision from the lab to the real world at scale, Qualcomm earlier this year announced its Snapdragon X70 Modem-RF System featuring integrated 5G/AI processing (another world’s first). Director of product management Frances Chen said the combo delivers significantly increased downlink throughput at the cell edge under certain conditions and uses AI to improve mmWave beam management, boost mmWave link robustness, and improve UE mobility. “We basically trained the network model to recognize a human and device interaction so we can reconfigure and re-direct antenna with accuracy and speed.”
Watch the full master class panel discussion here.
To understand how new spectrum, Release 17 enhancements, and the combination of 5G and AI, all fit together and set the stage for 5G Advanced—which begins with Release 18—and 6G beyond that, read the article, The 5G Advanced vision: Merging connectivity, compute and AI at the edge. For an even more on that, watch senior vice president of engineering John Smee’s master class, Driving the Technology Evolution for 5G Advanced.